“We are no longer locals when our homes are gone.” Such a sobering statement this early in the morning at the breakfast table in Palau. My new friend sipped his coffee and looked out across the street at the half-lit Massage Parlor sign and sighed. He has lived here all of his life and has seen his island transform from a sleepy and serene community to a bustling mini-city filled with tourists, contract workers and “Oh man, that traffic!”
I just returned from Chuuk and Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia where I had an opportunity to learn more about the Pacific Asia Travel Association and its mission to market Magnificent Micronesia through partnerships with local governments, businesses and non-profit organizations in the tourism industry. We were treated to a picnic on a tiny island a 30-minute boat ride away and owned by one of the hotels on Weno. It reminded me of Gilligan’s Island. This tiny oasis in the middle of the lagoon that could only fit a small house, separate bathroom and kitchen facilities and a barbeque pit.
One of our hosts, a local fisherman and boat captain, pointedly stated, “I hope you enjoy your stay on this island because in the near future it will be one of the many victims of global warming and will no longer exist.”
The rains were heavy and constant in the lush green island of Pohnpei, and I ended spending most of my time holed up in my hotel room working. When I did take a drive around town, I noticed there were no sandy beaches or people swimming in the waters, one of the main attractions for tourists. As a matter of fact, the water was so high it felt like I was driving below sea level.
While feasting on fresh yellow fin tuna and mayo omelets, a Pohnpei local breakfast special, my hosts discussed the issues that were barriers for a healthy tourism industry. They excitedly spoke about opportunities to build a casino and resort, complete with manmade sandy beaches and walking trails. However, “Our islands are sinking because bigger countries continue to kill our planet! So what will it matter in 50 years?” chimed one exasperated leader.
When I visited our neighboring islands, I spent most of my time listening, observing and empathizing with the locals. We have different languages, cultures, and traditions because our islands are so widely dispersed around Micronesia. From Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia is approximately 632 miles to the south, Palau is 821 miles to the west, and the CNMI is the closest at approximately 128.7 miles. We have a combined total of about 347,885 people living in three time zones in Micronesia.
The future of tourism in Micronesia seems to appear positive at this time. The travel industry is flourishing in Palau as it has earned a reputation as one of the top spots in the world for diving. Chuuk in the FSM is also becoming a popular destination within the diving community. FSM is currently at a greater disadvantage than Palau for tourism development due to its remoteness and lack of infrastructure. However, the introduction of a new airline route to Chuuk and the connection of the fiber optic cable in December 2018 are a sign of increased economic opportunities in the area.
We are all connected and have a responsibility to protect each other and our islands from manmade environmental disasters. We must create a One Micronesia plan to create and promote sustainable tourism for our next generations to come. We have a better chance of thriving as a people of Micronesia if we stop thinking of ourselves as different from each other and instead think of ourselves as locals of Micronesia. After all, we live in the Blue Continent.
Denise Mesa Mendiola is a senior business advisor to UOG - Guam Small Business Development Center; program coordinator for Bank of Guam Women in Business Program; and program coordinator at Local First! Guam, Entrepreneur. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org